Aleut Internment During World War II
"We have as many as ten and thirteen people,
large and small, sleeping, or trying to sleep, in one room.
The novelty has worn off long ago and now the real growling is
commencing in earnest. Most of them have all the reason in the
world to complain. No brooms, soap, mops or brushes to keep
the place suitable for poigs to sleep in. It seems funny that
our government can drop so many people in a place like this an then
forget about them altogether."
L. C. McMillin, agent of the Probilof evacuation
camp at Funter Bay
11 July 1942
Few Americans have heard of the "Aleutian campaign" or that
Native islanders, the Aleut, were removed from their villages and left to
languish in squalid relocation camps, bereft of adequate nutrition, medical
attention, heat, running water, and toilet facilities. Historians have
often referred to the Aleutian campaign as the "Forgotten War." It was
fought on American soil, and American forces incurred heavy losses along the
1500-mile front. The campaign also exacted a heavy toll upon the Aleut.
Among the many tragedies and conflicts of World War II, the
story of the Alaskan Aleuts' evacuation is usually overlooked or forgotten.
Alaska's Aleutian Islands are a string of more than 200 islands that arc like a
thousand-mile strand of pearls between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific
Ocean. The Aleutian archipelago endured many changes but one of the most
dramatic was the departure of the native Aleuts from their homeland. The
Aleuts faced many conflicts throughout their evacuation: the clash of cultures,
the struggle to manage in a foreign, inadequate and often hostile environment,
and the battle over their rights as citizens.
On 28 November 1941, the War Department was warned by Army
Intelligence that a Japanese attack on Alaska was eminent. In response
nearly 41,000 troops were stationed in Alaska by April, 1942. On 3 June
1942, the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor, and soldiers on Kiska and Attu.
Dutch harbor was the principal U.S. military outpost in the Aleutian chain.
Its depth accommodated large ships, and its location, between the Bering Sea and
the Pacific Ocean, was thought strategic in any military conflict involving the
U. S. and Japan.
The year of 1941 had been a decisive one for the Pacific theater
of World War II. Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union threatened to
divert Russian attention from its Siberian coast, adjacent to Japan. The
U.S. had committed itself to the lend-lease program, of which the Soviets as
well as England were beneficiaries. Well before Pearl Harbor, U. S.
military intelligence anticipated that Japan, concerned about U. S. ships using
Pacific routes to supply the Russians, would make aggressive naval and air moves
in the Pacific, and, if established on Pacific islands, would use them as bases
to attack Alaska and the U. S. west coast.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941
confirmed those fears and escalated the stakes in the Aleutian chain. The
U. S. had begun a frantic build-up of the Dutch Harbor area in 1941,
constructing air and naval bases where large numbers of troops could be
stationed. After Pearl Harbor, Japan's goals in the Pacific theater were
to neutralize the growing U. S. presence in the Aleutians while establishing
naval supremacy by securing Midway Island, an ideal location for naval aircraft
carriers. Japanese commanders resolved to launch an offensive on the
Aleutians, which they hoped might deceive the U. S. about a simultaneous "sneak"
attack on Midway. Their ultimate goal was not to use the Aleutians as a
launching post for attacks on the U. S. mainland, but simply to prevent the U.
S. from using them to invade Japan. Despite having cracked the Japanese
war codes by the spring of 1942, the U. S. was unaware of the Japanese goals and
in any event did not want any Japanese presence in the Aleutian chain.
Beginning in March of 1942, American military intelligence had
warned Alaskan defense officials that a Japanese attack was likely along the 900
mile island chain. On June 3, Japanese planes bombed American facilities
at Dutch Harbor and then several days later, Attu and Kiska islands were
Dutch Harbor was bombed by Japanese forces on June 3rd and 4th,
1942. Forty-two Americans were killed, 64 were injured, and ten U. S.
aircraft were lost. The result was that when, on June 7th, Japanese forces
invaded the islands of Kiska (largely uninhabited) and Attu, Atka - an island
600 miles west of Attu with a sheltered harbor - seemed next in line, with
Unalaska to follow.
More than 40 villagers were captured on Attu and spent the rest
of the war in prison camps in Hokkaido, Japan. Barely 20 would survive the
ordeal and return to Alaska. After the invasion, American officials
ordered the rest of the small villages in the chain to be evacuated.
American authorities made one of the most controversial
decisions of World War II - to relocate the residents of the Aleutians to
Various representatives of U. S. agencies, including the
Department of the Interior, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service, and the
Alaskan Office of Indian Affairs, as well as Governor Gruening weighed in on the
discussion of whether to evacuate Aleuts and where they should go. That
discussion was still ongoing in July 1942, even though Navy transports had begun
the evacuation a month earlier and even though no concrete plans had been made
for exactly where the evacuated Aleuts would be housed. All the
discussants anticipated that it would be somewhere in Southeast Alaska because
of its relative accessibility to the Aleutians and somewhat moderate climate,
but no facilities for house the Aleuts had been prepared.
At that point, a search began for abandoned canneries or
warehouses to house the Aleuts. Eventually five "campsite" locations were
identified: Funter Bay and Killisnoo, west of Admiralty Island; Wrangell
Institute, a stopover site on Wrangell Island, southeast of Admiralty Island;
Burnett Inlet, a permanent campsite on Wrangell Island; and Ward Cove on
Revillagigedo Island, where the town of Ketchikan was located. Decisions
to locate particular groups of Aleuts at particular campsites were made while
the private and Navy transport ships carrying the groups were wending their way
northeast from the Aleutian chain. As a result, the ships stopped in
various places as their itinerary was being figured out. Conditions on the
ships wee crowded; food was scanty; the weather, even in June and July, was
sometimes inclement, the threat of war hovered over the ships; passages, and the
Aleut passeng3ers were not allowed to take many of their belongings.
Flore Lakanof was a teenager in June 1942 when the Japanese
attacked Dutch Harbor to try to divert American forces from the naval battle at
Midway. He'd just come from church when the news started to spread
throughout his village of St. George. Then came chaos and confusion.
He and other Aleuts in the Pribilof and Aleutian islands had
little time to prepare for evacuation, to assemble one bag apiece before
boarding a troop ship and sailing away from the only life they'd ever known.
He didn't know how long they'd be gone or even where they were going. He
certainly didn't know his sister and grandmother would die there.
"We were only given a few hours to pack and we were allowed to
bring one suit case each," said Faye (McGlashan) Schlais.
885 Aleuts were sent by the federal government to internment
||from Atka to Killisnoo
||from St. Paul to Funter Bay cannery site
||from St. George to Funter Bay gold mine site
||from Nikolski to Ward Cove
||from Akutan to Ward Cove
||from Unalaska to Seattle
||from Kashega, Biorka, Makushkin and Unalaska to Burnett Inlet
With their homes suddenly in a war zone, the evacuation was
meant to get them out of harm's way. But that's not how this rescue
mission unfolded. Spread out among five isolated camps, 1,500 miles
from home, in strange rain-forest land that felt suffocating to those
accustomed to treeless, windswept tundra, the Aleuts were left to languish
from neglect, malnutrition and disease.
Dora Dushkin was six when she, with the rest of her family,
boarded a ship for Funter Bay. On board, Dora gained a baby sister,
who died shortly after her birth of pneumonia. Susan Della Kochutin
was laid to rest in the Gulf of Alaska near Kodiak and was sadly the first
casualty of the evacuation.
Initially, U. S. authorities thought that the Ward Cove
evacuees would be better off than other groups because they were the only
group that would be connected, by an eight mile road, to a population center
and they would also be taking over a camp that had been on constant use and
not abandoned for some time like the canneries. And since it was
clear that the camp had been designed to house a group half the size of the
Aleut evacuees, building supplies would also be provided to expand the
accommodations. The Aleuts were accompanied by Barbara and Samuel
Whitfield, the Office of Indian Affairs teacher from Nikolski and her
husband who would later leave to join the Coast Guard. Shortly after,
Fred Geeslin, an Office of Indian Affairs resettlement officer was also
posted to the camp.
Ward Cove was a 1930s Civilian Conservation Camp (CCC)
comprised of nine small cabins and four communal buildings. Each cabin
had a small kitchen and a bedroom with two bunk beds. Lumber brought
from Wrangell was used to build additional cabins and some furniture, scrap
lumber was used for insulation although most of the buildings were far from
In all camps it was up to the Aleuts themselves to make
things better. The government lumber was all they had been given in
additional to small amount of food. Government officials expected them
to be able to "live off the land" yet the Aleuts were without hunting or
fishing gear and could not continue their subsistence lifestyle, according
to Alice Petrivelli, who was interned as a 12-year-old child. It was
also expected that the Aleuts would find work in the Ketchikan area to
support the camp.
Funter Bay was located in a forest and many of the Aleuts
had never before seen trees. Familiar medicinal plants were
unavailable in this new environment. The Tlingit Indians native to
that area taught the Aleuts survival skills as well as offering their
Federal fish and wildlife agents were in charge of the
Funter Bay camp where Kekanof and other from the Pribilofs ended up and many
died. Among the most deplorable conditions were at Funter Bay on
Admiralty Island. Dora Dushkin's first memory of Funter Bay was of her
family of twelve living in a poorly insulated space that was ten feet by ten
feet, partitioned by blankets. Mice and rats scurried across the
floor. A toilet over the beach just about the low tide mark served 200
people. All the human waste was washed directly into the Bay.
The water was contaminated and the facilities for boiling water were hard to
come by. Food was scarce and Dora and her sisters began chewing on
their thumbs to ward off hunger pangs.
Those from St. George moved into a decrepit old gold mine and
those from St. Paul to an equally dilapidated, abandoned cannery. With
light pouring in between cracks and people falling through dry rotted floors,
these places were vermin-ridden and incapable of being heated. Sanitation
and pipesystems were never installed. Residents drank water tainted with
sewage and - at one camp - runoff from the expanding cemetery. Survivors
spoke of constantly being cold and hungry and sick.
An estimated one in ten died in the camps.
Despite the horrors of the internment, the Aleuts refused to
succumb to despair. The villagers of Unalaska erected a makeshift church
and named it after their beloved Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ.
The religious articles and holy cards brought from the villages took on immense
importance, the Aleuts turning to their faith for strength.
While religion was primary, self-sufficiency and cooperation
also helped the Aleuts in the camps. While religion was primary,
self-sufficiency and cooperation also helped Aleuts in the camps. These
were old practical values in the Aleut village tradition. They were put to
good use because all Southeast camps needed major repairs or additional housing.
Aleuts pitched in with considerable carpentry, mechanical and electrician skills
to refurbish and expand these "duration villages," as government officials
called them. Aleuts who could find jobs also worked for wages outside the
camps. Had there been more jobs, the Alaska Indian Service and U. S. Fish
and Wildlife Service goals of total self-support for evacuation camps would have
been met. As it was, some Funter Bay evacuees worked in a defense project
at Excursion Inlet; both men and women found jobs in Juneau; Atkan men and women
worked in nearby canneries; and Burnett Inlet and Ward Cove evacuees were
employed in cannery and construction labor in Ketchikan. Like Sophie
Pletnikoff, Aleuts who rented apartments and worked in Ketchikan helped relieve
the Ward Cove camp's overcrowding.
Within the camps, the cooperative principal at work was
succinctly stated by John Nevzaroff of Atka: "We all work together." They
used funds from their pre-evacuation store to support a widow with six children
in camp and established a successful cooperative store at Killisnoo. When
their leader was drowned in an accident, they elected William Dirks to take his
place, perpetuating a practice of self-governance. The five Aleut groups
at Ward Cove did the same by electing as spokesman Mark Pettikoff of Akutan in a
show of cooperation.
Despite their poor treatment at the hands of the U. S.
government, the Aleut remained a fiercely patriotic people. Twenty-five
Aleut men joined the armed forces. Three took part in the U. S. invation
of Attu Island, and all were awarded the Bronze Star. At their camps, the
Aleut surreptitiously voted in Territorial elections. Through exposure to
the outside world, they had come to understand the importance of their
participation in the democracy by which they were governed, and they desired
participation with the full rights of citizens. The next generation of
Aleut leaders spent their formative childhood years in these camps.
Although the war in Alaska essentially had ended by late summer
of 1943, the Aleuts wept in camps as late as 1945.
The Aleuts returned to their communities nearly two years after
the war ended and a year after relocation was approved, as strangers in their
The Aleutian islands remained a theater of war, and the U. S.
Navy and Army had moved into the islands in earnest. The Army initially
developed a "scorched earth" policy on such islands as Atka, to keep potential
Japanese invaders from gaining access to anything useful. Attu had been
ravaged in the May 1943 battles. Unalaska and the Pribilofs, along with
Atka, thronged with soldiers who were housed in rapidly constructed barracks
that replaced the Aleut dwellings. The quality of their soil and drinking
water had been permanently compromised by military contamination. When
some of those soldiers found possessions the departing Aleuts had been forced to
leave behind, they looted them. Even some churches were vandalized or
destroyed. The residents of Nikolski found the distinctive cupola, located
atop the church, had bee used for target practice, letting water into the
ceiling and walls. Looting and vandalism by the American troops was so
extensive in the two villages that inquiries were conducted and extensive
repairs were attempted by the military after the war. The federal
government replaced some of the lost furnishing and appliances; the Navy
repaired broken windows and doors.
The Attu Aleuts taken by the Japanese in September, 1942, were
treated as prisoners of war throughout the war. Of the 40 Attu evacuees,
16 died in their first prison facility, in the city of Otaru on the west coast
of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four major islands. In the fall
of 1945, after Japan's surrender, they were transferred by U. S. authorities to
Okinawa. After a long journey from Okinawa to Manila to San Francisco to
Seattle, 24 survivors returned to the U. S. in November. Nine more of the
evacuees died before the Attuans were resettled in the Aleutian chain in
December, but not on Attu. The federal government did not want to spend
the money to rebuild Attu, instead building homes for the Attuans on Atka.
Traditionally the Atkan and Attuan peoples had been rivals.
Thus, although those inhabitants of the Aleutian and Pribilof
islands who were evacuated to the U. S. fared, on the whole, poorly, those taken
to Japan fared far worse. Further, the attitudes of the evacuating
governments differed. The Japanese treated the Attuans as prisoners of
war. American authorities evacuated and interned Aleuts in part for their
protection. The U. S. government also paid for their food and lodging,
made some effort to find them jobs, and after a timer, did not drastically
restrict their ability to leave the camps. It also paid for the Aleuts'
resettlement, and filed claims on behalf of the Attuans with a War Claims
Commission, established by Congress in 1948. Twenty-three surviving
Attuans or their descendants received payments under those claims in 1951, the
largest amounting to $2,358. The funds came from the sales of confiscated
On 10 August 1988, public law 100-383 made restitution to the
Aleuts for their years of personal loss by paying the 450 individual survivors
$12,000 each and creating a trust fund for communities and churches. The
sum of $6.4 million was appropriated for community use; $5 million was for the
six communities to use on projects designed particularly to benefit the elderly,
students, and cultural preservation and $1.4 million was to compensate for
church property lost, damaged or destroyed.
After years of debate on the Senate floor S1009, the Civil
Liberties Act of 1988, was passed. The government gave monetary
reparations and a formal apology for their actions during the World War II Aleut
Aleut Corporation was given $15 million as compensation for Attu
Island, which was occupied by the military after the war and remains closed to
its former inhabitants. Attuans, seized by Japanese troops in June, 1942,
and take to POW camps in Japan, were resettled after the war at Atka, more than
500 miles from their home island.